Get What You Want From Difficult People With One Step

© 2014 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

A College Example–

Imagine checking into your hotel room on a business trip, only to find a randomly assigned, half-dressed roommate and empty take-out boxes strewn about.   It’s just like that for many roomies, on campus or off.  You want the window open and he wants it closed.  His girlfriend is apparently going to spend the night and the non-smoking room smells like butts. Yuk!

Many universities recognize the time and effort involved in resolving student conflict (roommates being one of the top complaints). In a nod to the high-tech world of students, some schools are implementing web services to match up roomies and student conflict offices are in many college campuses for help resolving conflicts.  Peaceful conflict resolution is always a good thing. However, while many online sources I read direct students to “talk it out,” I wondered if they also teach the skills necessary to communicate effectively with each other, before a conflict escalates to the point of needing intervention.

I Hate My Roommate!

Coping with a roommate when you have differences or just don’t like each other can be hard.   Talking it over is a good start since reasonable differences can be resolved with reasonable people, but watch out for the High-Conflict roomie:

JASON – Dude, you see me reading. Turn off the TV!

GEORGE – Hang on. I want to see this.

JASON – Seriously? Been there done that. You know you’re too noisy when I’m studying.

GEORGE – Just chill. Rebecca’s coming over and I’ll turn it down then.

JASON – Again!?! She can’t be here all the time. She can’t stay the night again either.

GEORGE – What are you? My mother? Get a life.

JASON – If your mom knew everything you do, she’d have a fit and cut you off! Just turn off the freakin’ TV.

GEORGE– Don’t talk about my mom, man. Eat Sh**!

Who’s the High-Conflict Person?

In this example, you might think both guys are High-Conflict People (HCPs).  In a way, they are, but maybe it did not start out that way. Jason is a regular kid, but he’s fed up with arguments he’s had with George in the past.  Jason is hip to George’s passive-aggressive ways and he let his irritation at earlier confrontations sneak into the attitude he took with George from the start.  What now?

Jason feels like George doesn’t get it and he’s frustrated.  He’s told him all about it before, so why can’t George just stop turning up the TV?  One of the hardest things to deal with when you are stuck with an HCP is approaching each confrontation as its own entity.  If George is an HCP, he has a my-way-or-the highway mindset, and he’s not going to stop being difficult just because Jason said something about it earlier. He’ll  disregard anything he may have agreed to before, and he will refrain from doing what Jason asks because that’s too much like giving in. Jason is never going to find the right words to make George finally see the light about the TV or anything else.  HCP’s rarely change their pattern of behavior, so the best Jason can hope is to address each situation on a case-by-case basis.

What’s That One Step?

I’m so over It! Since he’s dealing with an HCP, Jason should decide which is more pressing at this moment– winning the TV argument or studying in peace.  Jason wants quiet time with the books, so he should go at this battle in a manner that is most likely to get him the result he wants right now.  He can start by not going into a discussion being “pre-annoyed” with George.  It’s sometimes tough to do, but it’s necessary in order to approach a difficult person on a topic that is important to Jason.

One way to accomplish that is for Jason to calm himself down before he speaks.  It’s nearly impossible to have a reasonable conversation when we’re upset.  All sorts of nasty little chemicals are bouncing around in our brains and we are hung up on thought’s like “he’s such an a-hole” and “he never learns,” which have no application to solving the immediate problem and get us even more worked up.  Instead, take that proverbial deep breath and tell yourself calming statements such as: “I have dealt with him before, and I can do it this time.  It’s not a crisis and I’m not going to let the situation stop me from studying.  I can take a little time to make proposals for a TV /Study schedule, or I can go study in the student lounge.”  The goal is to calm your brain enough to banish the angry-making chemicals and switch over to your “problem-solving” brain.

Once Jason is calmer, he’ll be better equipped to come up with an opening that is less likely to trigger George’s defenses. “Hey man, I’m getting distracted by the TV, could you use headphones for a while?” is better than barking out commands to turn it off.  George will see this as Jason’s problem (he probably already does) and will be more open to the headphones idea.  If needed, Jason can hit ‘ol George with a few BIFF statements to keep it from escalating, but otherwise he can be done with it for the day so he can go on studying.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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